Lance Armstrong's ghost hangs over TV deal
Commentary: Comcast's Versus bets on the Tour de France
Last update: 8:54 a.m. EDT June 9, 2008NEW YORK (MarketWatch) --
When cycling icon Lance Armstrong was winning the Tour de France year after year, the sport received splashy headlines in the United States. But with Armstrong and his star power in retirement and doping concerns hitting the sport, it's unclear whether the grueling race can continue to captivate American television audiences.
Versus cable-TV unit is gambling that the Tour can overcome Armstrong's absence -- and the stigma of a doping scandal. The 2006 champion, Floyd Landis, lost his crown when he flunked a drug test.
Versus has struck a five-year, $27.5 million U.S. broadcast agreement with Amaury Sport Organisation, which oversees the Tour, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing a person familiar with the negotiations. Details of the pact, which includes English-language rights in Canada, were expected to be disclosed on Monday.
The move carries a relatively low price tag but still represents a big risk. In the U.S., second-tier spectator sports, such as ice hockey, have taken a ratings beating in recent years. American viewers have remained fixated with the likes of such mainstays as pro football, college basketball's annual March Madness tournament, golf and Nascar.
In the absence of Armstrong's iconic presence, the sponsors must fall back on a strong marketing campaign to arouse interest in cycling. The doping taint complicates their task.
The Journal reported that there's a new multi-platform advertising campaign in the works called "Take Back the Tour," intended to get viewers and fans to rally around the sport.
Sure, a snappy Madison Avenue ad campaign can't hurt. But without Lance Armstrong's star power, cycling will face an uphill climb.
-- Jon Friedman